Monday Dec. 21, 2015

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A Short Testament

Whatever harm I may have done
In all my life in all your wide creation
If I cannot repair it
I beg you to repair it,

And then there are all the wounded
The poor the deaf the lonely and the old
Whom I have roughly dismissed
As if I were not one of them.
Where I have wronged them by it
And cannot make amends
I ask you
To comfort them to overflowing,

And where there are lives I may have withered around me,
Or lives of strangers far or near
That I’ve destroyed in blind complicity,
And if I cannot find them
Or have no way to serve them,

Remember them. I beg you to remember them

When winter is over
And all your unimaginable promises
Burst into song on death’s bare branches.

“A Short Testament” by Anne Porter from Living Things. © Zoland Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House premiered at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen on this date in 1879. The play had been published three weeks before, so most theatergoers already knew the story when they took their seats, but this didn’t hurt the box office: people turned out in droves, and every night of the play’s opening run was sold out. Reviews were mixed; some critics were offended by Ibsen’s cynical views on marriage, and didn’t like the fact that his heroine leaves her husband at the play’s end. Other critics — including George Bernard Shaw — found Ibsen’s clear-eyed look at society refreshing. And the Social Democrat raved, “We have not, in dramatic or poetic form, seen a better, more powerful contribution to the question of female emancipation!” For his part, Ibsen claimed that he wrote “without any conscious thought to making propaganda.”

It’s the birthday of essayist Edward Hoagland (books by this author), born in New York City (1932). When he was six years old, he developed a terrible stammer; he said, “As a stutterer, I was unable to talk to anyone but close friends and my parents. I longed to converse.” He turned to writing and to solitary time outdoors.

Hoagland was accepted to Harvard. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to be a writer or a zoologist, so he wrote to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and asked for a summer job working with the big cats. When he was accepted, he hitchhiked to meet up with the circus. On his first day, he was handed an ax and instructed to butcher a dead horse to feed the cats. He traveled around with the circus, sleeping under the lion cage. He said: “The circus was very important to me. It taught me how to live, about the importance of risks and survivability — the traveling, the temporariness of life, the impromptu arrangements, the friendships that heat up and cool, the love affairs, the coming into a new place and making a space for oneself with new acquaintances, putting up one’s tent, so to speak.”

Back at Harvard, in between summers at the circus, Hoagland went to work on a novel — he wrote eight drafts, all in longhand, and all in iambic meter since that was how Shakespeare and Melville wrote. The work paid off, and before he graduated Hoagland had sold Cat Man (1956) to Houghton Mifflin.

Hoagland’s next novel was about boxing, which he wrote after spending two years hanging out in boxing gyms while he worked for the Army medical corps. Another novel was set in the frontier, so he headed to rural British Columbia and spent a summer in Telegraph Creek, a town of 150 people. He wrote in his journal: “It’s not the people who are so different here, it’s the events, the mode of living, a most ancient mode going back to when the Greeks landed in Sicily or the Danes settled in Iceland.” When he got home and returned to his novel, he realized that the journal he had kept in Telegraph Creek was good by itself, not just as material for fiction. So he published Notes from the Century Before: A Journal from British Columbia (1969), and he realized that he wanted to be an essayist, not a fiction writer. He said: “My aptitudes were not those of a novelist. I didn’t have the memory or the imagination of a great novelist. [...] Passionate, enthralling novels are a young person’s game. Essayists live longer: they draw on considered opinion, decades of experience, moderation, tolerance.”

He began alternating time exploring in the wild, where he took long and detailed notes, with time at home writing. He works for 50 hours a week, a pace that hasn’t let up since his college days. He averages 20 words an hour on the first and second drafts of an essay, and speeds up to 30 words an hour for the third draft.

He is the author of more than 20 books, including The Courage of Turtles (1971), Heart’s Desire (1988), Tigers & Ice (1999), Compass Points (2001), and Children Are Diamonds (2013).

He said: “Country people tend to consider that they have a corner on righteousness and to distrust most manifestations of cleverness, while people in the city are leery of righteousness but ascribe to themselves all manner of cleverness.”

On this day in 1620, the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on the shores of Massachusetts. The Mayflower carried enough furniture for 19 cottages, as well as pigs, goats, guns, journals, and Bibles. Native American tribes had already skirmished with the Pilgrims as they explored the banks of Cape Cod. William Bradford, who became the governor of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that they reached the new continent and found nothing but “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.”

For the first year, the Pilgrims and Indians lived peacefully together. They signed a peace treaty in the spring and had a plentiful harvest. But there was trouble the following January. The chief of a tribe called the Narragansett wanted no part in the peace treaty, and he sent Bradford a sheaf of arrows wrapped inside a snakeskin. Bradford sent the snakeskin back to him, stuffing it with bullets. Then the pilgrims built a wall around their village, 11 feet high and a mile around.

A year later, in March 1623, Bradford sent a group of heavily armed men to a neighboring camp of English settlers. They had been told that the Indians there were planning a massacre. Led by Miles Standish, they arrived at the village and cornered four Indians. Standish took them into a hut and killed them with a knife. Then he ordered his men to kill all the Indians in the village, but some escaped into a swamp. He cut off the head of one of the Indians and brought it back to Plymouth, placing it on a spike for all to see. Later, a former minister to the Pilgrims sent a letter saying, “Oh! How happy a thing had it been, if you had converted some before you had killed any.”

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